SFU’s new MBA program targets growth in aboriginal economy

Jun 26, 2012

The following article was published by The Vancouver Sun on June 23, 2012.

Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell is one of several aboriginal leaders who have signed up for a new business degree program at Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business. (Photograph by: Wayne Leidenfrost, PNG, Vancouver Sun)

Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell, like other aboriginal leaders across B.C., sees accelerated business opportunities as key to his com-munity’s future.

To that end, the 39-year-old chief is one of several first nations leaders signing on for a new business degree pro-gram offered by Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.

“I see this as an opportunity to develop skills in business administration,” said Campbell, who will participate in the Executive MBA in Aboriginal Business and Leadership program – the first of its type in Canada – which starts this fall.


Campbell said aboriginal businesses already span a range of industries, but require more knowledge to build capacity and foster growth. “We want to build shopping centres and commercial space so our small businesses have a place to compete. This is a tool to advance our interests.”

The new program was developed to provide senior-level management education for aboriginal managers and entrepreneurs, as well as for those collaborating with aboriginal communities.

It will provide executive-level training from the perspective of first nations while reflecting the growing role of business development in aboriginal communities.

“This program helps us get another set of skills to lead the community in the right direction and make informed decisions when dealing with band business,” said David Jimmie, the 35-year-old chief and CEO of Squiala First Nation in Chilliwack and a member of the Sto: lo Nation, who has also signed up. “A lot of times we don’t have the right expertise or capacity.”

Jimmie, whose community is involved in many business ventures including the construction of a major shopping centre development called Eagle Landing, said it also helps show the youth of his community that education is important.

About 25 people have signed up for the SFU program, including Soowahlie First Nation Chief Otis Jasper, Musqueam First Nation assistant treaty director Dianne Sparrow, and Nupqu Development Corporation’s business manager Norm Fraser.

The impetus is clear. Aboriginal business is increasingly front and centre as oil and gas exploration in northern B.C. revs up, first nations tourism is taking advantage of heightened international interest, and small-and-medium-sized businesses – already growing at a faster pace than in the general population – are moving into new fields.


Promoting aboriginal business growth makes good economic sense for everyone, said a report by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) called Promise and Prosperity: The Aboriginal Business Survey.

It said B.C. has the second highest concentration of self-employed aboriginal people in Canada – 22 per cent of the 37,000 self-employed Canadian first nations people over-all, or 8,140 businesses.

As well, the Industry Council for Aboriginal Business (ICAB) – which among other things promotes economic dialogue and opportunities between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal community – recently launched an association to foster growth in B.C.’s aboriginal business sector.

Called the BC Aboriginal Business Association, it has established agreements with eight corporate partners to deliver business development seminars and presentations to association members across the province.

“The aboriginal business owner and entrepreneur sec-tor is growing at five times the rate of self-employed Canadians overall, but one of the challenges individuals face is having the knowledge, resources and finances to develop their business,” said ICAB president Keith Henry, in a statement.

He said the B.C. association will help strengthen aboriginal business development by connecting individuals with corporate partners with expertise in key areas ranging from accounting to Internet-based technology to media relations.

ICAB executive-director Brenda Ireland said there’s huge potential for growth, especially within the expanding energy sector in northern B.C.

But she said there’s potential for growth across all sectors. “[Businesses] vary from restaurants to tourism operators, river boat operations, oil and gas well services, fishing, agriculture and wineries.

“I was at a fundraiser last week and there were four aboriginal [clothing] designers.”

The CCAB report said aboriginal businesses are diverse, and not limited to any one region, industry sector or market.


“They are well-established in the construction and primary sectors [agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, mining, and oil and gas extraction]. Yet, just as many operate in knowledge and service-based sectors, such as education, scientific and technical services, or health and social services.”

The report noted that while most aboriginal small businesses are innovative, most also have no employees, with only one in four having at least one paid employee.

Just three in 10 business owners have had formal business training at the college or university level and 71 per cent have not taken business training courses.

The SFU program’s director, Mark Selman, said for-mal business training is badly needed among first nations entrepreneurs.

“For the most part, they lack good training and learn by the seat of their pants.

“I’d say about one-quarter of the first nations in B.C. have established or are trying to establish an aboriginal Economic Development Corporation [EDCs are the economic and business development arm of aboriginal governments, which are flourishing in Canada]. Several of them are very successful, but too often they have to hire external managers.”

He said businesses often fail because those managers leave without transferring their skills to the band.

Selman said the biggest growth curve in aboriginal business over the next decade will be entrepreneurs or family businesses, both on and off reserve.

There will also be a lot more opportunity for deals between first nations and government and first nations and resource companies.


Meanwhile, a TD Economics report in conjunction with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business concluded last year that the combined income of aboriginal households, business and government sectors in Canada should rise sharply in the next five years to $32 billion, with the growth largely attributed to EDCs.

Economist Derek Burleton, who co-wrote the TD report, said that while it didn’t have provincial breakdowns, B.C. has about 17 per cent of the aboriginal population, so should see about $6 billion to $7 billion in total income by 2016.

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